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10.5.18

À mon chevet: 'Go, Went, Gone'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
A doctor can certainly aim to serve humanity in general, but there's also nothing stopping him if he prefers to reserve his services for a particular sector of humanity. One Dr. Thaler, for example, two hundred years ago in Vienna, removed the skin of Soliman -- a native-born Nigerian -- after his demise with the most illustrious permission of Kaiser Franz himself. He flayed this man who'd saved the life of Prince von Lobkovitz in battle, stripped the skin of this Negro named Soliman, flayed the tutor to the royal house of Lichtenstein, a black man named Soliman; he removed the skin of this Freemason of the lodge True Concord, a moor who bore the name Soliman, he flayed the skin of the brother, as it were, of Freemasons Mozart and Schikaneder, the sponsor of scientist Ignaz von Born when he applied for incorporation in the lodge; he removed the skin of an African named Soliman, skinned a married Viennese gentleman who mastered six languages, whose daughter later married Baron von Feuchtersleben and whose grandson Eduard rose to prominence as a poet in the early nineteenth century, in other words removed the skin of a respected member of Viennese society who, to be sure, had once, a long time before, been African, a child named Soliman, he skinned this person who early on in his life had been traded for a horse at the slave market and was later sold to someone in Messina -- Soliman by name -- he flayed this former slave of lowly race. He then tanned the skin, stretched it upon a body made of wood, and, disregarding the request by the daughter of the deceased that the skin of her father be relinquished to her, that it might be interred -- this daughterly request was disregarded, and her stuffed father was placed in a display case on the fourth floor of the Imperial Cabinet of Natural Curiosities for the edification of the Viennese. Admittedly, the skirt of feathers with which the moor was adorned had been crafted by South American Indians, and so was not entirely accurate from an academic perspective, but it did nicely accentuate the exotic nature of the specimen.

For a moment Richard tries to imagine a display case in the National Museum of Cairo containing, for instance, the stuffed skin of archaelogist Heinrich Schliemann dressed in a Spanish matador's costume or a traditional Mongolian garment made of sheepskin and silk. What barbarians one might justifiably exclaim in regard to such Egyptian museum directors. In Vienna, the "Noble Savage" was removed from display at some point, but not to be buried, instead he was placed in storage and left there -- dusty and all but forgotten -- until finally during the Vienna uprising in 1848 a fire took mercy on his mortal remains.

There are black birds in the world, so why shouldn't there be black people? To Richard, this sentence from the opera The Magic Flute always used to adequately explain everything there was to say about differences in skin color. At the same time, it doesn't surprise him that a conversation about a patient from Niger should reveal to him whom he can still count as a friend in today's Germany and whom he cannot.

-- Jenny Erpenbeck, Go, Went, Gone, Chapter 48
The latest book from the Best of the Year list compiled by my favorite literary critic, James Wood, is a recent German novel by Jenny Erpenbeck. It follows a retired professor, formerly from East Germany, as he becomes entangled with a group of refugees fleeing violence in Africa. He is not initially for or against Germany taking in refugees, but he wants to understand what would drive these men across the Mediterranean, as well as the animus of public sentiment against them. All of this transpires against the backdrop of Berlin, which as the protagonist remembers was once as divided as Europe and Africa seem now.

He launches into the series of thoughts quoted above after a friend of his, a doctor he has called for some medical advice for one of the refugees, makes a baldly racist joke and bursts into laughter. Angelo Soliman, at the center of this sort of rant, was an actual person. The line quoted from The Magic Flute, spoken by Pagageno in reference to the moor character, Monostatos, is often cut, at least in productions I have seen, presumably because it is perceived as racist. In fact, as Richard sees it, it is a sign of Papageno's acceptance of someone of whom he was scared at first. Through their Masonic connections, both Mozart and Schikaneder likely knew of Angelo Soliman.

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